On May 6, a team of more than 300 climate scientists and experts released the third U.S. National Climate Assessment, which reported, “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.” The Obama administration had intended the Climate Assessment to underscore the urgency of new regulations to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, which it will unveil next month.
But the point was underscored far more dramatically, and by events the administration did not choreograph, six days later. The day began when a different group of scientists reported that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun disintegrating irreversibly, a process that will hasten the continued rise of the oceans. That same afternoon, in Washington, the Senate considered a bipartisan bill to reduce energy costs through conservation—cuddly, corporate-friendly greening like energy-efficiency standards in buildings and smart meters. The proposal, sponsored by Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, was projected to save businesses and consumers a hundred billion dollars by eliminating wasted energy costs without creating any notable losers. The two senators had worked on versions of the bill for three and a half years, jettisoning any remotely controversial provisions, and gained the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other famous non-hippies. It contains all the lowest-hanging fruit of reduced carbon emissions. Republicans nonetheless filibustered it to death over the inclusion of controversial amendments that they hope could damage Democrats in the midterm elections but are unrelated to the bill’s workings.
Here is where the politics of climate change stand at the outset of Obama’s new climate offensive. The scientific consensus is stronger and more urgent than ever, while the political consensus is weaker than ever. Republicans are not even considering the notion of asking Americans to spend money to mitigate climate change, and are increasingly uncertain about the notion of even saving money to mitigate climate change. And into this simmering pot of reflexive opposition and anti-empiricism Obama will plop a highly ambitious and not very cuddly scheme to clean up the power-plant sector. It has already drawn strong opposition from the major business lobbies. It is likely to become the major point of conflagration of Obama’s second term.
As recently as a few months ago, it was preposterous to imagine that the midterm elections would revolve around anything but Obamacare. But the law, which last fall lay ailing while conservatives spoke openly about pulling the plug, has, to their dismay, bounded out of bed. It still polls badly, but not as badly as the Republican stance of repealing it. Republican officials occasionally muse in public of the need to accommodate the millions of newly insured, and though they are quickly slapped down by the dead-enders for such surrender talk, the waft of capitulation is in the air. After years of relentless pounding, Republicans in Congress currently have no votes or hearings scheduled on Obamacare.
The sudden renewal of the conservative Benghazi obsession arises, in part, from party leaders’ needing a new outrage to cover a quiet retreat from the Obamacare jihad. But the issue sits too far from everyday voter concerns to carry the party through to November. Obama’s new regulations can fill that vacuum once occupied by health care. As right-wing hate fodder, it may even exceed it. No specifics have yet leaked, but the general shape of the plan is widely known: Obama will announce new national guidelines limiting emissions for existing power plants, which account for 40 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions. The plan both fulfills a generational goal of liberal social policy and stokes conservative fears of an unaccountable executive. It’s Obamacare and Benghazi rolled into one.
The timing of Obama’s announcement was dictated by the bureaucratic clock, not the electoral one. For the president to have his new system firmly in place by the time he departs the White House, he needs time to issue his proposal, take public comments, finalize it, defend it against inevitable legal challenges, and so on. Certain political advantages do present themselves. Since the law authorizing Obama’s plan has already passed Congress (the Clean Air Act, in 1970), there will be no drawn-out battle on the Hill like the one that bled the polls on health care. Americans do support, by a wide margin, regulating the greenhouse-gas emissions of power plants.
The debate will also reinvigorate a semi-dormant political liability for the Republican Party: a reputation for hostility to science. The first leak to spring open in the Nixon-Reagan-Bush electoral coalition was in 2000, with the defection of college-educated white voters who recoiled from the party’s deepening social populism. Democrats drew some blood starting in the 2004 election by assailing the Bush administration’s indifference to science. (This was also, perhaps, a polite way of expressing the widespread belief that the incumbent president was not a bright man.)
The run-up to Obama’s climate offensive has revived right-wing anti-scientism, which has grown more virulent in the intervening years. The legitimacy of climate science had taken root enough within the Republican Party that John McCain could advocate a cap-and-trade plan during his 2008 campaign. But polls have found that, even as scientists have become more certain of anthropogenic climate change, Republican skepticism has swelled. Even the most respectable conservative intellectuals talk about climate science the way John Birch enthusiasts railed against fluoridated water in the ’50s. Climate scientists further the hoax, George Will solemnly explained on a recent Fox News All-Star panel, because they “want money from the biggest source of direct research in this country, the federal government.” Fellow panelist Charles Krauthammer went further, painting the theory connecting the emission of heat-trapping molecules into the atmosphere with higher levels of heat as baseless faith. “It’s the oldest superstition around,” he observed. “It was in the Old Testament. It’s in the rain dance of the Native Americans.”
The likes of Will and Krauthammer have a way of rendering these sorts of fantastical pronouncements with an air of erudition. (That is why they are not mere Fox News panelists but Fox News All-Star panelists.) But ideas like these tend to come off as comical when echoed by younger or less practiced figures like Marco Rubio. (“What they have chosen to do is take a handful of decades of research and say that this is now evidence of a longer-term trend.”)
Still, Republicans are likely to have the better of the debate politically. Support for regulating carbon emissions may be broad, but it’s tissue-thin—Americans rank climate change near or at the bottom of their priorities. A 2011 survey found the amount an average American would pay in higher electricity costs for the sake of clean energy to be a pitiably low $162 a year. The absence of an extended, Obamacare-style legislative slog will help Obama’s case, but years of lengthy court battles won’t. Opponents may manage to sustain state-level challenges and overwhelming red-state resistance.
The grimmest contrast between power-plant regulation and health care is that regulating carbon emissions creates almost no winners. There will be no equivalent of the millions of people newly granted access to medical care, no heartwarming stories of long-suffering patients seeing a doctor for the first time in years. Climate regulation doesn’t create a benefit. It doesn’t even prevent a loss. Its only goal is to mitigate the extent of the damage.
And this is why, unlike carefully selected election-year issues like the minimum wage or equal pay, Obama is not picking this issue to help his party save Senate seats. He is doing this because, given the enormity of the stakes for centuries to come, there is no morally defensible alternative.
*This article appeared in the May 19, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.